Illustration: Yvonne Zmarsly

Spike #79: Denk ich an Deutschland

Four voices in art and politics convene for a roundtable on censorship, what the hell is happening in Germany, and art’s role on the precipice of doom.

Alex Hochuli: Polycrisis, over a relatively short time, has come to be a general category through which a lot of our problems are conceived on a global scale. In its crudest sense, it conveys that everything is getting crazy at once, a feeling that has filtered down into general consciousness beyond theorists like Adam Tooze, the historian who has done the most to popularize this term. He first encountered it in conversation with former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014, and found that “poly” effectively directed attention to a diversity of challenges, without specifying a single, dominant contradiction or source of tension or dysfunction. For Tooze, polycrisis is different from conceptions of crisis that existed up through the 1970s, which would have attributed all of your troubles to a single cause, be it capitalism or industrialism or modernity, depending on your ideological perspective. Today we seem incapable of making such judgments.

Do you understand our time as one of crisis? And what have been your own particular experiences of this universal phenomenon?

Anselm Franke: I want to express a certain reservation towards the way in which crisis discourses implicitly establish a notion of normality, and to try to think productively about what normality is implied. In a book about the notion of crisis we are publishing together, Singaporean artist Ho Rui An recounts an episode from 2015 when Mark Carney, then the Governor of the Bank of England, suggested that the financialization of the energy industry meant that any attempt to restrict fossil fuel extraction to avert planetary catastrophe would immediately destabilize financial markets – any abrupt resolution to the tragedy of horizons is, in itself, a risk to financial stability. To put it another way, crisis discourses imply the stabilization of systems that are geared towards maintaining themselves.

Speaking from my own German, Western European position, the whole postwar order is fundamentally decomposing, or has already decomposed. That’s of greatest impact for art in its globalized notion, because its idealism is built to such a great extent on a postwar narrative of denazifi cation and the “becoming good” of Germany – the French art historian Catherine Dossin called it “The German Century.” Now, we are living at the end of the dominant paradigm of political and economic liberalism. Especially after Covid, we came to realize, even though very differently situated globally, a sense of multiple crisis intersecting with the long death of liberalism, its experiential frame, and the guarantees that such a frame has either provided for the privileged or promised (emptily) to the non-privileged. Someone once said: The whole panorama of capitalist crises are never the crises of capital. They are always the crisis of people living under capitalism.

Around the world, there are notions of somewhere as a “normal country” where things work. For many people, for a long time, that has been Germany – but it isn’t anymore.

Juliano Fiori: Modernity itself could be understood as a time of crisis. It is born of crisis. In his seminal work Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (1959), German historian Reinhart Koselleck discusses the rupture of society from the absolutist state. This crisis contributed to a waning of authority – a detachment of politics from conventional sources of authority that made it more prone to crises of legitimacy. That modernity can be understood as a period in which “the decision” ultimately resides with the people returns us to the Greek word krinein, from which the term “crisis” derives: to decide.

The recurrence of crisis in modernity then produces a sense that modernity is crisis, reflected, for example, in the work of liberal sociologist Robert Ezra Park. He talked about the city – the most striking physical manifestation of modernity – as existing in a permanent state of crisis. The theorization of crisis has been particularly important to the Marxist intellectual tradition. Marx himself believed his conception of crisis to be his principal theoretical achievement. Into the 20th century, Marxist crisis theory gave greater attention to capitalist cycles, following Soviet economists like Pavel Maksakovsky and Nikolai Kondratiev. Their ideas provide foundations for contemporary discussions of so-called “long-wave” theorists about whether capitalist economies are likely to reanimate themselves from secular stagnation.

The suggestion that we are living through an extended period of stagnation then brings us to the question of whether the historical era in which we live, in particular, should be considered a time of crisis. What American historian Robert Brenner calls a “long downturn,” beginning in the 1970s, maps more or less on to the period in which neoliberalism became not only the dominant ideology of a class of rentiers and financial speculators, but also (to paraphrase Chilean economist Gabriel Palma) the technology through which the political representatives of this class introduced risk into the heart of the welfarized state. This has been a period in which the frequency of crisis and its centrality to political argument have contributed to its banalization as a concept.

Neoliberal political economy has had a particularly profound effect on the world of work, which has become fragmented not only through the informalization of labor, but also through the decentralization of production. It has progressively destroyed the living labor – that is, the deployed capacity to work in the present, or, to use Marx’s term, “labor-power in action” – that is essential to the reproduction of capitalism.

I believe this destructive, cannibalistic tendency of contemporary capitalism to be a central factor in many of the crises we can identify today: social turbulence, which leads to new political formations and deformations that undermine established order; the acceleration of environmental degradation; and the intensification of great-power rivalry, among others. Moreover, it underlies the emergence of a collective imagination of something far worse than our current crises: all-encompassing catastrophe. Of course, every generalizing characterization of the present reflects a spirit of the age; perhaps the very urge to characterize the present reflects a spirit of the age. For this reason, I wouldn’t make the empirical claim that we live in a time of crisis. Rather, I would attempt a characterization that acknowledges the spirit of the age: We live in a time of catastrophe.

The way things escalated after 7 October reminded me that, no matter how sincerely the West wants to create open forums that make space for us Palestinians, they are simply not ready or willing to actually face what that implies, which is a reckoning with an imperialist, colonial past and an ongoing exploitation of peoples from the places they colonized.

Basma al-Sharif: My take on polycrisis is a continuation of something that I, as a Palestinian, have unconsciously reckoned with my entire life. Since moving to Germany from Cairo four years ago, there’s been a global pandemic, a war began in Ukraine, and protests in Iran erupted; now, I’m watching my people being erased. Add to that the housing crisis, climate activists gluing themselves to the road, and the multitude of causes the people around me are engaged in a diverse city like Berlin. Polycrisis has always been there for me, living in diaspora, where the struggle is not my immediate context or environment, but that my life is a direct consequence of occupation. It means having to remind myself to keep blinders on and to only focus on our struggle, in order not to collapse into feelings of futility and uselessness.

Hochuli: Around the world, there are notions of somewhere as a “normal country” where things work. For many people, for a long time, that has been Germany – but it isn’t anymore. This sense of collapse has already happened to Britain, the United States, and France, this last long beset by a feeling of gloom. Germany held on longer than most, but now, it’s economically
sluggish, deindustrializing, struggling to negotiate tensions in international affairs, and has lost a sense of political consensus. Lastly, there are serious threats to freedom of expression and civil liberties, owing to the way that accusations of antisemitism have been weaponized and the way protests in solidarity with Palestine have been banned.

al-Sharif: Before moving here, I had been coming to Berlin more than any other city in Europe to show my work. My work and its politics are pretty explicit, and Berlin felt like a place that encouraged discourse, that welcomed our voices. I have participated in different festivals and exhibitions big and small where it seemed completely normal to speak about Palestine openly, to not be censored or met with hostility. When I moved to Berlin, though, the reality of the situation here began to reveal itself. It was the fi rst time I ever heard the term antideutsch (literally “anti-German”; a Zionist left-wing tendency), and it became notable to me that the shows I had participated in were “international” and predominantly happened in English. I also arrived at a time when things were getting worse for Palestinians, following a 2019 parliamentary resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as antisemitic and the cancellation of Achille Mbembe’s keynote address at that year’s Ruhrtriennale festival. The way things escalated after 7 October reminded me that, no matter how sincerely the West wants to create open forums that make space for us Palestinians, they are simply not ready or willing to actually face what that implies, which is a reckoning with an imperialist, colonial past and an ongoing exploitation of peoples from the places they colonized. When anyone even begins to question or confront this, the mirage falls apart.


Basma Al-sharif, Anselm Franke, Juliano Fiori, Alex Hochuli (clockwise)

Franke: I want to draw attention to a book that was influential in thinking about the uses of “crisis,” Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007), which paints a picture of what happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – the collapse of the Soviet Union, the project of the end of history, liberal globalization. There are chapters of her analysis of “disaster capitalism” that deal with Israel and its economy that are worth looking at again. She says that, for a considerable time, under the framework of the Oslo Accords, the economic and political project of Israel was an insertion into globalism. But then, it began to collapse, and a new business model emerged. A new discourse about the symbolic and material frame of the economy turned into an industry of securitization, militarization, and policing. These chapters read almost prophetically, but against the backdrop of today’s horrific events, the limits to the fantasy of “managing” the Palestinian question under the security paradigm have become clear.

Looking at larger tectonic shifts, I’d like to suggest that the events after 7 October are symptoms of a decomposing postwar order. There is considerable interest among endangered white majorities in taking down that order, in reverting to an overtly racist politics and narrative, especially in the face of Europe’s grim economic prospects. Consider the human rights and anti-discrimination laws enshrined in our constitutions and our international legal structures. They were a postwar product, only possible to implement against the backdrop of the mass killings under Nazism and, to a certain extent, of decolonization. That legal infrastructure is what the new right is attacking from so many directions. It unites the right across Europe and the UK, dovetailing not only with the exceptionalist impunity of the US, but with Israel’s attempt to weaken, if not dismantle outright, the UN and its institutions of international justice. In Europe, it is an attack against migrants, both at the EU’s borders and internally. Before they’re ready to go to war against one another again, these right-wingers’ common goal is to be able to discriminate with impunity, to which we are yet to see an organized and effective resistance. Meanwhile, the undermining of a European foreign policy supporting a two-state solution, with at least a nominal recognition of Palestinian rights, is, in effect, instrumental to this rightward lurch. ...

– This text appears in full in Spike #79 – The Pessimist Issue. You can order your copy in our online shop